UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Unearthing economic transformation in the wake of disaster


In what seems like an instant, catastrophic weather can devastate communities and shock a region’s economy. How can residents rebuild in the wake of such damage?

That’s the urgent question facing many residents of eastern North Carolina, where Hurricane Matthew swept through – displacing residents, destroying homes and crippling infrastructure – in October 2016. Well into 2017, there’s still much progress to make.

North Carolina officials estimate the storm caused $2.8 billion in direct losses – which excludes economic hits such as lost income for individuals and revenue for businesses. And for residents of communities most affected by the storm, a forgone sense of normalcy isn’t calculated into any figures.

In the Edgecombe County town of Princeville, North Carolina, dozens of residents remain in motel rooms more than six months after Hurricane Matthew disappeared into the atmosphere. Many Princeville residents were told the land their housing once occupied is too flood-prone to rebuild, which means FEMA can’t provide them with trailers to live in.

At the same time, the growing web of parties involved – regulatory agencies, government bodies, nonprofit liaisons and the displaced residents – has complicated communications to residents and left some unsure as to when their temporary housing assistance will run out.

Some residents of Princeville are beginning to say they feel like refugees in their own hometown.

The Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise gathered government officials, nonprofit workers and business leaders for a roundtable discussion to explore viable solutions for these displaced communities.

Finding a new approach for a unique situation

Eastern North Carolina is traditionally one of the more economically disadvantaged regions in the state – with higher unemployment and weaker infrastructure than much of the rest of North Carolina.


And the region’s faced devastating weather crises before. In 1999, after Hurricane Floyd produced one of the greatest weather disasters in North Carolina history, towns like Princeville had to rebuild.

Residents concede that the region’s sensitivity to flooding has intensified since Hurricane Floyd, which means another disaster would simply reverse all the progress made.

For recovery efforts to be meaningful and lasting, rebuilding can’t be the sole solution this time. Weather can’t be deterred, but it can be understood, and that’s what residents and town leaders want and need.

Roundtable participants note that Elizabeth City State University, in the region’s northern edge, has one of the top aviation science programs in the nation. This provides an opportunity for communities to pull from their academic resources while engaging in public-private partnerships to learn more about this unique situation and how to rebuild for it.

Meanwhile, an influx of new home construction provides the perfect opportunity for workforce development in partnership with local schools. For instance, apprenticeship opportunities can be given to graduating high school students who don’t plan on going to college.

Fueling efforts with public-private partnerships

Many residents received payments associated with the damage to their homes or businesses, but town leaders note that some community members have voiced concerns over not being sure how to best use the funds to recover their losses.

Enhancing the community’s financial literacy would help bridge this problem while ensuring that the money spurring recovery efforts also promotes a better future for residents and their communities.

Some nonprofits have been aiming to do just that, but with dwindling resources, they need help. And once again, participants point to public-private partnerships, which could help supply resources and financial literacy tools to the citizens who need them most.

It’s never too late to begin reversing damage done to the environment. After the storm’s adverse impact on the region’s land, clearing the firebreaks in the region and planting new trees can help stabilize the environment while also creating employment opportunities that don’t require technical skills.

While months or even years might pass before federal support is calculated and disbursed, recovery doesn’t need to depend on solely the people of eastern North Carolina.

“We owe it to all our people to come up with a statewide solution. It shouldn’t just be up to those people in Edgecombe or Robeson Counties to fix it,” said Greg Brown, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise and finance professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler.